A Wake for a Landmark’s Lost Designation


Docomomo US/Philadelphia


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It had all the earmarks of a wake: people dressed in black, lamenting an unexpected loss, then toasting the departed one at a nearby pub.  But the mourners in this case were members of Docomomo US/Philadelphia, who gathered on June 28th to protest the rescinding of a familiar site’s historic designation.  The landmark in question is the Robinson Building, a monument to the city’s retail past.

Completed in 1946 and situated along the city’s bustling Market Street east corridor -- a stretch that once boasted such emporiums as John Wanamaker, Gimbels, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Lit Brothers -- the Robinson Building was a glittering new shopping magnet during the mid-twentieth century.  Attached to an 1880s-vintage structure, the store featured a sweeping, wave-like façade designed by Victor Gruen and his then-wife, the designer Elsie Krummeck.  The front was studded with more than 819,000 purple glass tesserae and illuminated by lights that were set behind rectangular grills for a dramatic effect.  The store, one of a dozen designed by the couple for the Grayson Robinson chain, is the only one extant, and the only Gruen building in Philadelphia.  Although the Robinson Building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2016, appeals were filed almost immediately against the landmark’s new status. In November 2017, the designation was reversed by the Department of Licenses and Inspections on behalf of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust and Macerich.  The fate of the building is now uncertain, and it could be demolished at the will of the developers. 


“The rescinding of the Robinson Building’s historic designation is deeply disturbing,” says preservationist Ben Leech. “Not only could it mean the destruction of this particular landmark; it means the undercutting of the entire process.  We don’t know what will happen to the Robinson Building, but we hope to make Philadelphians more cognizant of the threats posed to our built environment, including sites with nominal protection.”


The Robinson Building “wake” was part of Docomomo US/Philadelphia’s One Building One Brew series, held several times a year to highlight one of the city’s Modernist landmarks – followed by happy hour at El Vez, a local bar/restaurant.